UPDATE 03.26.2023 / New poetry prompts for NaPoWriMo 2023 are live!
I’m delighted to share with you 30 new poetry prompts for NAPOWRIMO! I’ve published them in time for the April 2022 poem-a-day attempt, but of course, you can use them any time. They’re part of an annual tradition I’ve started here at the blog. Other installments are here: poetry prompts for NAPOWRIMO 2021 and (coming soon!) poetry prompts for NAPOWRIMO 2023.
Before you get going, here are a three pointers:
- The key is to follow them wherever they take you (versus getting hung up on following them precisely).
- If you’ve read my poetry prompts before, you know there’s one rule that’s really important to me: Please, please, please, never, never, never copy the source poems. They’re for inspiration only! (See the note at the end of this post if you need more info on navigating this rule.)
- I invite you to bookmark this page for easy return and check out more prompts in my lists of online prompts from others and poetry prompts I’ve published here previously.
WRITING PROMPTS for National Poetry Month (or any poem-a-day challenge)
We’ve had enough! Let’s get mad about it and start the month off by writing a list poem about something that’s just too much to bear any longer a la Ada Limón’s The End of Poetry. If you can, end your poem with a gesture toward an antidote to the subject of your rant. Here, for example, Limón offers a version of “a little less talk, a lot more action, baby” as what she’d like instead of poetry.
…enough of the pointing to the world, wearyExcerpt from Ada Limon’s “The End of Poetry”
and desperate, enough of the brutal and the border,
enough of can you see me, can you hear me, enough
I am human, enough I am alone and I am desperate,
enough of the animal saving me, enough of the high
water, enough sorrow, enough of the air and its ease,
I am asking you to touch me.
2. Let’s Ted Lasso this thing
I resisted watching Ted Lasso because I’m quite a jerk. I considered myself too serious to watch a feel-good show with an over-the-top glass-half-full character that everyone else fawned over. Well, I gave in, and I have zero regrets. For this prompt, write a poem (an ode, maybe?) about something that never disappoints you. For me, it could be the word wanker, which is never in short supply on the show, but here are two equally deserving ones from Ted Lasso himself: “Ice cream’s the best. It’s kinda like seeing Billy Joel live. Never disappoints.”
3. With dressing but on the side
We all have that one menu item we always alter when ordering food. “No onions,” for example. “Hold the mayo.” Write a poem that starts with one of these special requests or substitutions. If you want, use the request as your title.
4. Learning as we go along
Write a poem about a time when you were forced to learn how to do something or how to handle something “on the fly.” Take a look at Lesley Wheeler’s Extended Release for a really powerful example. In keeping vigil at the bedside and trying to care for her mother, the poem’s speaker laments, “I won’t know how to daughter till it’s done.”
5. Earth 2.0
Imagine the planet’s no longer habitable. (Not a stretch, sadly.) Now imagine we had time to prepare and recreate its atmosphere and other key elements right here on Earth or on some distant planet. Scientists have done a lot of the legwork on this. Check out the Biosphere in Oracle, Arizona. I’d seen a documentary about it (Spaceship Earth), covering both its scientific challenges and human dramas. In a big stroke of luck (my son attended the University of Arizona for a semester), I had a chance to visit. It didn’t disappoint.
Write a poem in which you live in some kind of substitute for the Earth. What do you miss? What’s a surprising success, and what’s an utter failure?
6. Song of Myself
Not *that* Song of Myself, but this one: “Jen Frantz” by Jen Frantz. Following the example set by Frantz, use your own name as the title and write a poem that celebrates the one and only you.
7. Wish you were here
In “Letter to My Husband Far Away,” Gillian Wegener describes what it’s like at home without a loved one and what she’s doing waiting for their return. Write a letter poem to someone as though you’re waiting for them to return. They may be coming back from vacation or the store. They may be coming back after a break-up. You may even be wishing for them to return from illness or death.
8. If these walls could talk
Write a poem that speaks for a person, scene or object in a photograph or piece of artwork that’s hanging on the wall in the room you’re in right now. If, for whatever reason, there’s nothing on your walls, go with it and give voice to that vacancy/absence instead.
9. Eat your veggies
Take us into your kitchen, and write a poem that tells us about your relationship with vegetables. Feel free to make this about anything from chopping and dicing to replicating a holiday side dish that’s a family tradition. There’s also no shame in admitting you are a carnivore through and through or that you love vegetables more in the store and a little less once you get them home.
10. Turn it on for turn-ons
Read “All the Aphrodisiacs” by Cathy Park Hong and write a poem about what gets you going. Note how Hong doesn’t linger long on common aphrodisiacs but instead spends time with very specific details about what’s personal to the speaker. Not ginseng or shellfish but “recitation of the alphabet,” “a pinch of rain caught between mouths” and “strips of white cotton I use to bind your wrist to post.”
11. Patience, grasshopper
Write a poem about a time you were waiting. You may or may not want to share with your reader what/who it is that you’re expecting.
12. It’s gotta be more than cockroaches
Write a poem about what will survive long after we’re gone. Yes, we’ve all heard that it’ll be cockroaches, but stretch a little bit beyond that. For inspiration, take a look at “Octopus Empire” by Marilyn Nelson.
In The Princess Bride, Vizzine repeats the word inconceivable so much (and seemingly incorrectly) that Fezzik finally says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” That is, perhaps, a gratuitous mention of “The Princess Bride,” but I never get tired of the film and its quotes no matter how many times I hear them.
However, there are types of repetition that ask us to take a more active role, even challenging us to consider if our words mean what we think they mean. For example, “Lavendar” by Joanna Fuhrman repeats the phrase “in a funk.” In doing so, she examines the phrase both playfully (from a linguistic standpoint) and seriously (in terms of meaning). Let’s choose a word or phrase and free write a bazillion (or 20-25) ways to use it. Include usages that are common and also usages that are odd or new. Build your poem with the most interesting selections from your free write.
14. Pick your poison
Write an ode to your favorite cocktail or bud of choice! If you don’t have one in mind and want to play the field instead, see what’s out there via this alphabetical cocktail recipe collection or this searchable list of cannabis strains. And if you don’t indulge at all, no judgment! Write an ode to any beverage or herb you love.
15. Report back from an adventure in your own backyard
We live just a couple miles from a state park with stunning views and fascinating geological features, and somehow, we don’t visit as much as we could/should. But when we do? It’s inspiring! For this prompt, go on a little field trip to your literal backyard (or to something close by) and spend some time looking closely at what’s there. Try to see it with fresh eyes. Write a poem about what you find interesting and maybe include some lines that speak to how it felt to give it this kind of attention.
16. “Maddened. A little hopeless. Embarrassingly in love.”
That’s a quote from “Love Poem Without a Drop of Hyperbole in It” by Traci Brimhall, and it’s time to tell us how crazy *you* are in love. Write a poem that repeats “I love you like _____” and give yourself permission to be weird and silly and over-the top.
17. Peas in a pod
Roy Kent is my favorite character on Ted Lasso. He drops F-bombs constantly and growls a lot. Knowing that “crankypants” is right at the top of this blog, you won’t be surprised to also learn that my favorite Sesame Street character is Oscar the Grouch. Earlier this year, Brett Goldstein, who plays Kent, visited Sesame Street and then shared this image on Instagram. OMG ROY KENT AND OSCAR THE GROUCH GOT TO MEET!
In honor of this brilliant *pair*-ing, write a poem about a pair of things, like gloves, crutches or headlights. Or get more creative and try slightly more abstract pairs, like only one pair of hands, partners in crime, BFFs, another pair of eyes, double trouble, etc.
18. An end to suffering
In “Nothing Wants to Suffer,” Danusha Laméris crafts a list of things that don’t want to suffer (and how they do). The poem has so much beauty and tenderness in it despite the pain it carries. Focusing on this kind of gentleness and care, write a poem about alleviating suffering… big or small… your own or that of others.
19. Walk on the wild side
Pick an abstract concept and take it on a walk, as in the poem “Late Afternoon Stroll on the Cliffs.” In it, Laure-Anne Bosselaar strolls arm-in-arm with Death, but you can choose any abstraction as your companion (like Romance, Doubt or Joy) and go on any type of walk (hike, ramble or run).
20. Come scroll away, come scroll away, come scroll away with meeeeee
Grab your smartphone and use the following details in a poem:
- the scene/scenario of one of your five most recent photos
- a response to one of your three most recent texts
- the color that’s prominent in your most liked post on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram
- the title of a note in your Notes app
- an emotion (anger, fear, excitement, etc.) elicited by the subject of a recent email
- the name of a musician you listened to recently according to your music streaming app or the name of an actor in a show/movie in your “continue watching” queue
Note that you don’t have to mention your phone as the source; the content is most important. Don’t have all of these things? Make them up!
21. Where you were after it happened
Read “Driving Through Mississippi After the Capitol Hill Riot” by January Gill O’Neil and write about what you did after a major event in your country’s history and how it may have impacted your experience of what’s going on around you. A key moment of power in O’Neil’s poem is this direct address: “America, haven’t we been here before?” But she also makes other choices that may help you as you write: an abrupt stop in the action that opens up space for the speaker’s thoughts, appearance of no people aside from the poem’s “we” and a recasting of a common political phrase (“standing our ground”).
22. Air out the self doubt
Earlier this year, I caught up with episodes of the VS podcast, and I really loved hearing Sarah Kay talk about the kind of reflection (and poems) she’d been entertaining during social isolation. Part of that was navigating the space between Sarah Kay (her public self) and Sarah (her “real” self). It resonated with me since I’m working on a project about turning to an alter ego for help with… well, LIFE.
In the podcast, she read the poem “Unreliable,” and I was mesmerized by it and will be turning to it for inspiration. Want to join me? Write a poem in which you share some of your self doubt, going only as deep as you’re comfortable. What do you find embarrassing about yourself? What do you fear people will find out about you? What’s it like to juggle different versions of yourself?
23. Bloom where you’re planted
Write a poem about why you love where you live. (Of course, if you’re feeling cranky, and maybe for good reason, feel free to flip this one on its head and write its opposite: why you *don’t like where you live.) Yes, this prompt has lots in common with #15, but it pulls the lens back a little. In terms of “where you live,” think neighborhood, block, town, city, state, region or country.
24. What more could you do
Read Jane Hirshfield’s “Let Them Not Say” and linger a bit on this pair of lines: “Let them not say: they did nothing. / We did not-enough.” Then, write a poem about something for which you wish you could have (or should have) done more. Try, like Hirshfield does, to gesture toward some redemption (“we warmed ourselves by it, / read by its light”) without letting yourself off the hook. If it makes more sense, focus on someone else who didn’t do — or isn’t doing — enough.
Remember those paint-by-number kits? (If not, here’s a bit of info from Wikipedia.) Filling in shapes that were numbered to coincide with paint colors, an entire painting came into view. For this prompt, gather up some numbers:
- COVID or climate change stats
- facts about big things (galaxies, blue whales, etc.) or small things (blood cells, fruit flies, etc.)
- probabilities (for finding love, getting bitten by a shark, etc.) or…
- *anything* else you like.
Build your poem with as many numbers/stats that make sense to you, even if it’s just one.
26. Sound off
Write a poem that starts with a sound, like this sonnet from Meghan Sterling: “Before school there are icicles.“
27. Embarrassing yourself
I bookmarked (and retweeted) this tweet from Nancy Reddy in early March because it made me LOL:
But it’s more than funny (and true!). It’s also a good writing prompt. Write a poem about something that you find embarrassing or silly or weird about writing poetry. You don’t have to linger on it (i.e. make the entire poem “about” that) but let it start you on a path you can follow to a fresh draft.
28. A prize winning poem
Take another look at Sarah Kay’s “Unreliable,” which opens with this line: “Where is my prize for most unreliable narrator?” Now, write a poem about something for which you could win a prize.
29. “Survival is insufficient”
I read Station Eleven, a 2015 novel by Emily St. John Mandel about a flu that kills 999 in every 1,000 people, on the beach at Cape Cod the summer of 2020. Amazing timing, right? Somehow, still, it managed to give me a bit of hope, and much of that has to do with the quote, “Survival is insufficient.” As we follow a troupe of Shakespearean actors through the apocalypse, one thing the quote means is that we need art. In an interview with NPR, Mandel explains that the quote (which she borrowed from Star Trek: Voyager) is “almost the thesis statement of the entire novel.”
In the spirit of Station Eleven, let’s praise the things that help us feel alive no matter what. Write a poem that makes sacred the places or objects you see every day. Celebrate them as you would life itself. And then celebrate that, too. (I just happen to be in love with a poem by Eve Ewing that does this. Ewing starts “testify” with a moment “so golden / i wanted to cry” and goes on to express gratitude for a number of ordinary objects, which she makes holy as she offers them praise and thanks. The poem ends with a repeated affirmation of life.)
30. Do not disturb
Write a poem about a time you wanted to be left alone, needed to get out of Dodge or decided to take leave from social media (or from writing a poem-a-day LOL). For me, it was during a short February escape from winter in Upstate New York.
Be sure to let me know if you use any of these poetry prompts for NAPOWRIMO or any other time. Looking for more? You can find past poetry prompts here, including writing prompts from prior years.
Important note –> When you harvest material from exercises inspired by OPP (other people’s poems), it’s essential for you to credit your model (i.e. make a note at the top of your poem, like after AUTHOR’s “POEM”) or remove the other poet’s scaffolding entirely and keep only the material you crafted. Make it your own. Every time.
You may also like to check out this list for inspiration: 15 different types of poems you probably never imagined!